Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Reality of Eurasia

Chris Marsh and I just published this essay over at Policy Innovations, about the enduring nature of the Eurasian cultural and economic space nearly two decades after the collapse of the USSR. Moscow remains the air travel hub, the business hub, the communications hub and this trend doesn't appear to be changing anytime soon.

"From a political point of view, this is an entirely justifiable concern" - I think the article actually highlights that it is not entirely justifiable.
Actually, in most areas of the former USSR, breaking up the USSR brought little but impoverishment to most people living there. Living standards will likely improve as people ditch West-pleasing Russophobe governments in favor of developing closer economic, security, and political relations with Russia.

I mean, just look at how the SU-backed "Orange Revolution" has turned out in Ukraine. An utter, unmitigated socio-economic disaster.
Without a doubt, those who expected (or wished) the former Russian influence to simply vanish took no lessons away from the history of Russia in its periphery. The expectation took no consideration of the geo-politics of Russia's near abroad, nor the cultural and economic ties to Moscow. These were bound to assert themselves sooner or later.

However, the question is not one of Russian influence through economic dominance, but rather what Russia has become under Putin. Depending on the outcome of the current economic and political struggle within the power structure of the Federation, Russia appears to be on the course, politically, of creating a new Soviet Union. It is, for all intents and purposes, a dictatorship with a veneer of freedom. It only looks good in comparison to the Soviet period. There is nothing wrong with attempting to compete with Russia within its self-proclaimed sphere of influence.

The fact is that the Georgians, Eastern Europe and the Baltics do not want Russian political domination for reasons that border on outright hatred. States like Azerbaijan are not interested in falling into Russia's grasp. Uzbekistan is not a fan and will resist Russian geo-political interference while Turkemenistan and Kazakhstan seek to balance Russian regional strength with economic overtures to China. That leaves the basket cases of the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan.

The Kyrgyz around the capital Bishkek - a Russian creation - are more Russia oriented. The rest of the country does not speak Russian and is more concerned with China in any case. It is an economic disaster - as is Tajikistan which is always on the brink of a new civil war. But not because of the collapse and withdrawal of the Soviets.

The Uzbeks resent the Russians, but, for the moment, are trapped by energy related contracts. Regionally, they are the strongest bully on the block and mean to keep it that way. They too are looking for alternatives to Russia.

I agree with rkka that these former republics were better off under the Soviets and before them, the Russian Empire. But for different reasons. They were demonstrably not better off from an economic standpoint. There were few products on the shelves - the same as in Moscow of the time. Economic growth was artificial, uncompetitive and unsustainable - as Russia discovered.No political freedom existed whatsoever. What the Soviet Union brought was social justice through education and equality. These countries have largely (not completely, though) reverted back to tribalism, are dealing with disastrous education systems (although the University of Kyrgyzstan is fine) treat women as second class citizens at best and reinstituted a tribal 'strong man' culture - brutally refined, incidentally by the Russians.

I completely disagree about Ukraine. It has a wildly chaotic, but largely democratic system which is anathema to Russia. I've talked to senior staff at the Ministry of Economic Development in Moscow who admire somewhat wild political atmosphere. It has a free press which is non-exitent in Russia. It has a very strong middle class and a huge industrial base. It's politicians are venal, corrupt and ineffective. So what. That will change. It is not a social and economic disaster. I know because I live there.

I have lived in every country of the former Soviet Union for the past 15 years except Mongolia. I went to school in Leningrad in 1969and witnessed Russian repression in Prague. I see no reason for the US or the West to relieve the pressure on Russia or consider it somehow an equal. Russia still follows the Soviet zero sum game rule. The countries of Central Asia are looking for alternatives as a balance and Eastern Europe and the Baltics are looking for guarantees. They should get them.
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